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Most Popular Technique, Practice, & Performance

Have No Fear! How to Create Choreography Courageously

Everyone loves a good belly dance choreography… once, of course, it’s grown up into a well-mannered and polished routine. In its growing stages, choreography can be an unruly, demanding brat-  a brat that sometimes makes us want to cry or tear our hair extensions out.

It’s easy to get intimidated when you first begin. Suddenly it’s as if you can’t remember any of the moves or combinations you know. You think that everything you try looks stupid, or it’s just not good enough (anyone else besides me a perfectionist?). These kinds of thoughts aren’t helpful. In fact, they can shut down your creativity. So when we choreograph, we have to give ourselves space to experiment. We have to be willing to have some failures, and to acknowledge that this is part of the process. We have to trust ourselves.

Follow this mantra: Keep. It. Simple.

Keep it simple means that we get out of our own way. We aren’t overly critical of ourselves in the early stages. We keep an open mind to all possibilities. We choose movements and combinations that our bodies love to dance, not moves that we think we should be using or that are beyond our skill level. Keep it simple works because we can (and will) add complexity later. Keep it simple is just our path to get us there.

Before We Begin

The music comes first. Choosing the right song is crucial! The music you select should inspire you, be appropriate for your skill level, and be sensitive to the cultures it represents. Give this some thought before you begin. To start, you can  read my blog article about selecting the right music.

Give yourself plenty of time. Rushing the creative process to meet a deadline is stressful! You’ll have more space to experiment, more opportunities to be innovative, and a better chance of enjoying the experience if you work with a longer timeline.

Use the techniques that work for you (and ignore the ones that don’t). We all have a different way of learning, and inspiration may come to us in different ways. Experiment with the techniques listed here to see what resonates with you. Don’t add unnecessary work by using every technique in this article. <– Shameless plug: Next month I’ll be discussing how to make your learning style work for you. Check back here in September!

Consider keeping  a journal. You can write down (or video!) your thoughts as you go through the process. It’s helpful for remembering where you left off at your last practice, and for noting ideas you’d like to incorporate later or even in another piece.

Relax. Creativity works best when the mind is clear. Find space in your day when you can set aside your to-do list and life’s demands. You may also find it helpful to begin your practice with a short breathing exercise or a few minutes of meditation.

A frame for your creativity

Step 1: Explore Creatively

The first stage in the process of creating choreography is like brainstorming. This is when we want to be inspired, to be open to lots of possibilities, and to withhold judgement. This is also the stage when we really dive deep into the music, getting to know its nuances and complexities. You might find it helpful to commit to time, not goals (Instead ofI will choreograph the first minute of this song” think “I will spend an hour working on the choreography today”). Be kind and patient with yourself!

  • Improvise. Dance to the music without any expectations and see what happens naturally. If you’d like, you can even use a video camera for later review. Make notes about anything that felt or looked right. It’s okay to note challenging sections too, just remember to withhold judgement.
  • Map the music. This can really help you learn the music at a deeper level. Name each section and note where sections repeat. Mark any interesting accents or melodies. Note rhythm changes or difficult transitions. Later, your map may help you decide where you’d like to repeat sections of choreography, and where you’d like to accentuate contrast.
  • Create a movement bank. Listen to the music and envision the dance in your mind. Write down any moves or combinations you hear along the way. Create a list that you can reference later if you get stuck.
  • Work with a friend. Together you may discover new possibilities that neither of you had thought of before. A friend can help you brainstorm movements, or simply be your sounding board as you talk your ideas out aloud. Make sure, however, that you don’t rely upon him or her to do the work for you.

Structure is strength

Step 2: Strengthen with Structure

Now we’ll take the fruits of our brainstorming efforts and begin to organize them more formally. This is where we start forming combinations, playing with transitions, and thinking about how all the pieces fit together as a whole.

  • Start with sections. This means you don’t have to start at the beginning and then work your way through to the end. Choreograph each section of the music discretely, then build the bridges between sections with solid transitions.
  • Repetition is good.  Untrained eyes in your audience will need repetition to take in all the complexity of your movements, and even trained eyes enjoy seeing repeated combinations. When a section of the music repeats, your choreography should acknowledge it in some way. It’s your choice whether to repeat choreography strictly, move by move, or to add a little variation. It can be as simple as changing the direction or orientation of your movements. Another idea is to keep the overall structure but change specific isolations.
  • Add interest with contrast and texture. These elements give your choreography depth. Contrast can be achieved by breaking patterns, changing the mood or level of energy, or accentuating differences in the music. Texture can be added through variations in arm positions, level changes, body orientation and angle, and through floor patterns.
  • Pay attention to your transitions. After all, the chain is only as strong as its weakest link. This is really where you define your own style as a dancer. Transitions are simply how you get from A to B: between two movements, two combinations, two sections of the music, two moods. You can aim for seamlessness, and the audience arrives at B from A without having noticed. You can also deliberately add contrast, by making transitions sharp (but these are best used sparingly).
  • Spend time on the macro and micro. This is the key to making your choreography balanced. Macro elements are the big picture. It’s how your choreography flows from high energy sections to slow, reflective sections. It’s the symmetry of repeating combinations, giving equal weight to different parts of the room, and having diversity in movement. It’s how props are introduced, carried through, and discarded. Then there’s the micro elements, or the details. These elements include building combinations, the transitions between them, and their presentation.
  • It’s okay to be a hybrid. There’s nothing wrong with fusing choreography and improvisation together. You can create a macro structure and leave the details to improv. Or you can create a flow of movements and then improvise how and where you’ll carry them out in the performance space.

Polish to gold

Step 3: Refine and Polish

We’re ready to add the finishing touches – these are the details that will take your choreography from “nice” to “WOW!”. This is also the stage where it’s okay to be a constructive critic. Just remember that it’s the choreography that is being critiqued (“This shimmy isn’t working there… I need something that can let me travel”) not the dancer (“I can’t shimmy… I look awful”).

  • Make use of technology. Use that video camera or smart phone to record your performance! It’ll let you tease apart the areas that still need work, and it’ll show you what you look like without the aid of a mirror.
  • Get some feedback. A peer can help you find the strengths and weaknesses in a choreography. This is also a great time to schedule a private lesson with a teacher (in person or even online!) Getting overall impressions is useful, but you may also ask for help on specific areas or sections.
  • Consider expression and mood. Remember that through dance you can convey all the emotions of the soul, from celebratory joy to tragic loss. There’s also your approach, which can be flirty, mischievous, sensual, introspective, mysterious, or strong. Think about your body language or other cues you can give the audience. This is quite an in depth topic, but one we’ll surely explore in a later post!
  • Think about the presentation as a whole. How can you use costuming and makeup to accentuate the mood or movements? How you can use the venue’s performance space to your advantage? How will you introduce this piece to the audience?

 

I can’t promise you that after reading this blog article you’ll love creating choreography, nor do I think there are any tips I can give you that will make the process magically happen for you. In fact, I think it’s healthy to get frustrated, even to hate, the process sometimes (it shows that you’re being challenged, which means you’re growing as a dancer). Instead, I hope that this article may guide your approach and help you make the most of your creativity.

Well then! Now that you have a finished piece it’s time to really learn it. Check out my article on how to learn (and remember!) choreography for the stage.

Thanks to Burtn and night-fate-stock for the stock images.

 


Coming in September: We all have different learning styles. Find out which one works for you and how to use it in your study of belly dance.

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Most Popular Technique, Practice, & Performance

How to Learn (and Remember!) Choreography for the Stage

Choreography… for some dancers it’s a very long four-letter word. Even for those who love choreography, the process of learning a new routine can be exhausting, confusing, and defeating. As if preparing for a performance wasn’t intimidating enough!

Whether the idea of choreography makes you skip or shudder,  it’s pretty much a given that you’ll have to learn one at some point in your studies (And if you plan to perform regularly with a class or troupe you may as well learn to love it!). That’s why you need a strategy for learning choreography. It can make the process go a lot easier and it can help you remember a routine when it most matters… on stage!

The Theory Behind This Strategy

There’s a lot of approaches to learning choreography. In this post I’m going to share with you the one I use. I like it because it’s very simple. In fact, it’s all about achieving just one goal:

Learn the choreography by not thinking
Thanks to faestock  for stock image.

DON’T THINK. DANCE.

Here’s why: You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” response from psychology. It’s the idea that when we feel threatened, our bodies pump adrenaline into our system so that we’re ready to either flee or take the threat head on. This is obviously very useful when you’re physically threatened, such as if you encountered a bear on a hike. But this response happens when we face other kinds of threats, too. You’re familiar with the feeling- get up in front of a group to speak and suddenly you break into a cold sweat, your mouth is dry, and you can feel your heart racing.

On stage this can sometimes be inhibiting. But we can learn to use this natural response to our advantage. As we step out into the spotlight, blood is diverted away from internal organs and outwards towards our extremities. The thrill shuts down our ability for more abstract thinking, and churns up our baser instincts. Thinking isn’t very useful on stage. Muscle memory, on the other hand, is at its prime.

You have to learn choreography with your gut- not with your head. Choreography that becomes instinctual will serve you well under pressure, and you’ll remember it much longer (sometimes years!).

Let’s repeat our main goal here: DON’T THINK. DANCE. Now, here’s how to do it:

 

Step 1: Before You Begin

Know your moves. It’s true that some people actually prefer to learn how to dance through choreography, and choreography can actually be a really useful learning tool. But when we’re memorizing a routine for a performance, it’s best to be prepared by knowing all the moves first. Remember our goal? Concentrating too much brain power on how to perform a move when we should really only be thinking about when and where works against us. Make sure your technique is solid and you’ll think less on stage.

Know your learning style. Are you the type that likes to count beats? Do you learn better in a group? Does repeating silly mantras in your head help you remember a sequence? Having some self-knowledge about your personal learning style is worth its weight in gold. Now see if you can arrange to learn your choreography in an environment that supports your learning style. Not sure what your learning style is? Hmm… I might have an upcoming blog post about that…stay tuned!

Belly dancer on stage

Step 2: Getting Down to Business

Practice early and often.  If you had just six hours to perfect a choreography, it’d be better spent over the six weeks than the six hours before the show. Start practicing as early as you can, even if you only have a few combinations to work with at first. And try to sneak in frequent (rather than long) practices. You can, for example, save the 5 minutes before you jump into the shower before work as your choreography time. If you start early enough, it’s even okay to take some time off if life gets busy. (Added bonus… when you revisit the routine after time off you’ll discover which parts are the hardest to recall- drill those more.)

Listen to the music like crazy. Do this when you can’t physically practice, like on the way to work or while doing chores around the house, and at a deep level your brain will still be processing the motions. You’ll catch nuances in the music you didn’t hear at first. You’ll begin to anticipate every phrase and beat. It’ll take more thinking out of your dance because you’ll spend less brain power on interpreting what you’re hearing, leaving more brain power for reacting.

Drill specific phrases again and again. This is the muscle-memory part and the key to your practice! Start by breaking the choreography into its smallest unit, single combinations. These are like words in a sentence. Practice each one over and over without building or moving on. When you’ve drilled each ad nauseam, put two or three together to fit the phrasing of the music. These are like your choreography’s sentences. Drill, drill, drill. Finally, sentences can become paragraphs with entire sections of the music.

Note that this is distinctly different from how we are usually taught choreography, which is often by learning the beginning and then adding a little more on after each run through of the music. Don’t learn the choreography as a long string of movements. Drilling the building blocks makes a stronger foundation for adding more complex phrasing later.

However, I personally think it’s okay to practice the beginning more than the middle. Stepping out on stage is hard. If your entrance is strong it can help you transition into using the muscle memory that will take you safely through your routine. It can also give you a boost of confidence that will radiate from stage.

Check yourself (before you wreck yourself). Think you really know your stuff? Here’s a few ways to test, and more importantly discover, where your weaknesses are before show day:

  • Try starting in the middle of the music. Can you pick it up without any hesitation?
  • Can you perform the choreography without the aid of mirrors? How about facing a different direction than normal?
  • What happens when you perform in front of an audience of friends or family?
  • Throw yourself a curveball. Try placing an obstacle in the middle of the dance floor, or wear a big floppy hat (no seriously!). Can you perform while distracted?

If you’re still relying on your higher thinking skills to remember your routine, these scenarios might throw you off. You know what that means… back to drills, drill, drills!

Belly dancing on stage

Step 3: Performance Day Success Tips

Steal a moment in the spotlight. Try to get to the venue early, or arrange to see the stage before the show. You might be able to walk through your choreography, or at least stand on stage, before you perform. This is a great way to orient your routine to the performance space.

Anticipate distractions and eliminate. Is the entrance to the stage in a place you were not thinking? Is the stage shorter than you imagined? Proactively anticipate distractions and then practice dealing with them. If you do not have the time or space for physical practice, envision in your mind dealing with them successfully.

 

Learning choreography is an acquired skill. The more you practice, the easier it will become. Pick up some belly dance choreography DVDs, take a choreography workshop, or even try a fitness class (like step aerobics) that builds choreographed sequences. Practicing the skill of learning choreography, in between times when you’ll actually be using one for a performance, can make the process much easier.

Lastly, remember that it’s never the end of the world! As always treat yourself, flaws and all, with kindness and patience. Like many things in life, your experience of learning a choreography is dictated much more by your attitude than your actual performance. When needed, step back and take a breath!

 


Read the Next Article: This article assumed the choreography already existed. But how about some tips for creating your own? Learn how to create choreography courageously in my next article.

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Technique, Practice, & Performance

Learning the Art of Veil: Essential Tips for Beginner Belly Dancers

Although only introduced to Belly Dance in the last one hundred years, the veil is nonetheless an important tradition in American Cabaret. The image of a dancing girl with a veil dates back to the times of the ancient Romans, and is perhaps an inspiration for this art form.

As you will soon learn, the veil tends to have a mind of its own. It is sometimes unfaithful to even the most experienced dancers. Here are a few tips to help make your first experiences with a veil enjoyable:

How to Belly Dance with a Veil - Ananke

Selecting a Veil

Fabric: Choose a fabric that is light and loose such as silk or chiffon. Remember, each fabric will behave differently in the air. Some movements are better suited to certain types of fabrics

Size and Shape: The standard size is approximately 2.5 to 3 yards, rectangular shape. This is the easiest to work with, although some dancers prefer circular veils or different lengths.

Preparing to Dance

Environment: The veil may not perform well in certain environments. Windy weather may interfere with outdoor performances. Watch for low ceilings, lights, or other potential snags.

Hold: Be sure not to grasp the veil in a tight fist. Instead, interweave the fabric between the extended fingers.

Posture: Remember that the veil is often used to accentuate the body lines created in dance. Concentrate on maintaining clear lines through attention to proper posture, especially in the upper body.

Dancing with a Veil

Transitions: Do not rush the veil from one movement to another but allow time for the fabric to breathe. The appeal of the veil is in its interaction with the air, so exploit these transitions.

Variation: Play with different types of movements including spins, wraps, frames, and tosses to keep the routine exciting. Vary the tempo and the complexity, and do not forget to include regular dance movements.

Working through Mistakes

Keep Moving: Even when you have made a mistake or lost your grip on the veil, keep your feet moving while you work to find your place again. This keeps the audience from recognizing the error.

Let it Go: If all else fails, do not be afraid to toss the veil aside. You may pick it up later and continue dancing.

Where to learn some moves?

There are a lot of great resources available to you. There’s instruction on YouTube as well as DVD’s. And don’t forget your belly dance classes and workshops, too!

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Technique, Practice, & Performance

6 Tips for Selecting the Right Music for Your Next Performance

Choosing Belly Dance Performance Music

It all starts with music. It’s the foundation of your dance. You can have great technique and stage charisma, but if you’re not connecting to the music then you’re not connecting to the audience.

The best performances are the ones that blend all elements together seamlessly- the music complements the choice of movements, the costuming, the venue, and the dancer’s expression. Here are six tips for selecting and interpreting your next musical piece:

Selection

  • Pick a song that inspires you. Songs that naturally move you will be easier to choreograph and more enjoyable to watch in performance.
  • Give a thought to the venue. Where do you see yourself performing this routine? The musical style should fit the theme or demands of the show for which you are preparing. A non-traditional or fusion piece should only be performed at fusion-friendly events. Traditional music is appropriate at most shows, restaurants, and private gigs.
  • Avoid music that is too long or complicated. Basically, this boils down to owning the routine and dancing within your limits. You want to leave the audience wanting more. Beginners should stick to songs that are three to five minutes in length, with simple rhythms and a single mood or theme. You can begin to add in complexity as you advance in your studies. (This doesn’t mean beginner dancers can’t dance to more complicated music- it’s just not the best selection for a performance).

Interpretation

  • Know the meaning of the lyrics. This may be useful in helping you understand the emotions of the piece. And you also generally want to avoid music with religious, political, or other controversial themes. Try searching for a translation online.
  • Listen to the music, a lot! Learn all its pieces and how they fit together- the accents, crescendos, and pauses. It may sound tedious, but interpreting music is like developing a relationship with a person. There will be elements that grab your attention and excite you when you first hear the song, but your understanding will be deeper and more complex when you have gotten to know it well.
  • Break it down into recognizable segments. There should be repetition in your music- a chorus, a melody, a drum section. Find these patterns and map the overall structure. It’s important because your dancing should acknowledge repetitions in the music. Your movements, combinations, and patterns should repeat, at least in part, with the music.

Question for you: How do you know when you’ve found the right song?